Should Building Codes Be Unified in St. Louis County?
A group of home construction, realtor, and trade groups has launched an effort to consolidate the various building codes within St. Louis County. There are good arguments in favor of this effort, as well as legitimate concerns that need to be considered.
The arguments in favor of this effort are clear to see. From the press release:
The study [a study issued last October by St. Louis REALTORS] found there are at least 42 building code books used across 89 jurisdictions in St. Louis County. Together, the codes that were counted had a whopping 809 chapters, totaling about 17,000 pages.
42 different codes governing the work of plumbers, electricians, contractors and other professions is a lot. A contractor can be working on projects in neighboring cities and have different codes to follow. Admittedly, those codes are usually very similar. But there are differences between codes, and those differences undoubtedly lead to confusion and higher costs in construction in St. Louis County.
While the benefits of this change are obvious, the concerns are more nuanced. Interest groups use codes to advance their goals, which in most cases is profitability and higher pay. Unions use codes to limit competition. Industries use codes to require people to use items that are profitable to sell. In 1999, the Pipefitters Union tried to dramatically tighten the St. Louis County mechanical code for the benefit of its members by excluding competing unions and non-union workers. It failed the first time but succeeded in 2010 at getting those laws changed. More recently, the sprinkler industry has unsuccessfully attempted to use codes to mandate sprinklers in new homes. There is now a ban on such a requirement in Missouri. A sprinkler requirement would be great for the sprinkler industry, but it would increase the price of new homes. These kinds of decisions should be up to the home buyer, not the sprinkler industry.
Those are just a few examples. My concern is not that we would have fewer codes in the county. Some type of simplification could be beneficial. My concern is that a comprehensive code system would be used by interest groups for their own benefit at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. It is easier for an industry to capture one code than many codes.
Hopefully, the beneficial aspects of this proposal can be accentuated, and the risks reduced, because there are parts of this proposal that are genuinely needed. If codes are consolidated in St. Louis County, it would be imperative to have the boards that oversee the codes represent the public and not interest groups.